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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Björk: Selmasongs


1) Overture; 2) Cvalda; 3) I've Seen It All; 4) Scatterheart; 5) In The Musicals; 6) 107 Steps; 7) New World.

First and foremost, this review offers a great pretext for giving a good smacking to Lars von Trier, whom I have always admired for his talent and his audacity, and have always hated for all the wrong directions in which he has applied both. Dancer In The Dark, even more so than Breaking The Waves, and just about the same as Dogville, was a ridiculously staged study in personal manipulation — whose most unconventional and groundbreaking facet was its utter ridiculous­ness. I like the story about how, allegedly, Björk would begin her filming every day by saying "I despise you, Mr. von Trier", and spitting at the gent, which is probably what every intelligent person should have done in her place, were he/she under an obligation of some sort. The only question, of course, being «what the hell was she thinking in the first place?», and a possible answer being that, in the first place, she didn't think about anything, and in the second place, it was too late to back out already.

Not that the movie is bad in all respects: technically speaking, it's fine... other than the disgusting storyline (sort of like «Charles Dickens meets modern anti-American stereotypes») and, sub­sequently, the corny, incredibly artificial over- or under-acting of everyone involved. If you are into movies for different reasons (camera work, lighting, editing, etc.), Dancer In The Dark deserves to be seen. But mostly it just deserves to be seen in order to get a better context for Selma Songs, its accompanying soundtrack — a mini-album whose quality stands miles above the movie, so never make the mistake of bypassing it in your exploration of Björk's discography. This small bunch of songs is the finest thing to have come out of the entire project.

If anything, Selma Songs serves as a wonderful antidote for the distant and over-reaching effect of Homogenic — for a short time, it gives us back our Björk as a human being. Warped, crazy, totally idiosyncratic, but a human being nevertheless. The movie character, «Selma» — a helpless im­migrant mother matching near-complete blindness with a Dostoyevsky heart — may look caricaturesque in the movie (at least, the script does its best to present her as a caricature), but when it comes to painting that image with musical colors, von Trier is out of the picture and Björk is allowed complete creative freedom, and things like these are right up her alley, so she sort of transforms herself into the Who's Tommy and proceeds from there.

Actually, the Tommy connection can be extended: ʽOvertureʼ opens the small set with its musical theme played on the same French horn that was one of the key instruments on Tommy, courtesy of John Entwistle, setting much the same «epic / longago-and-faraway» rock-opera mood. There the superficial similarities end, and we proceed to join «Selma» in her amazing musifications of the sounds of the outside world. Selma, unlike Tommy, does not play pinball, but she likes to dance, and she constructs herself dance soundtracks out of the noises of the factory where she works (ʽCvaldaʼ), of the sounds of trains that pass her by on her way home (ʽI've Seen It Allʼ), of her personal tribulations (ʽScatterheartʼ, ʽIn The Musicalsʼ), and even out of her final moments on Earth (ʽNew Worldʼ). Most importantly, while it makes sense to be aware of the movie to under­stand what's going on, it all works much better as a song-set, without any visuals.

The «factory» and «train» arrangements actually happen to be some of the most reasonable and impressive justifications of the «industrial» style that I have ever heard — far more accessible than your average Einstürzende Neubauten and, for that reason, far more difficult to get right: anyone can base a musical composition upon «factory clanging», but not anyone can get the clanging to form a properly danceable skeleton, on top of which Selma's imagination then throws chimes, brass, strings, and whatever else comes into her head. And Björk's vocal style, the whole «little girl with a lion's roar and avantgarde ambitions» schtick, is perfect for the character — «little girl» agreeing with its helplessness, «lion's roar» agreeing with its determination, and «avantgarde ambitions» agreeing with its sensory uniqueness.

Since the movie had to be seen by, like, ordinary people (some of these still occasionally watched von Trier movies in 2000), the avantgarde ambitions are not quite so avantgarde as to completely neglect catchiness — and Björk's duet with long-time fan Thom Yorke on ʽI've Seen It Allʼ gua­rantees additional popularity, to which should be added the good news that Thom actually sings like a human being on the track, rather than in his «subterranean homesick alien» voice that he'd invented on OK Computer and which I honestly cannot stand one bit: consequently, their mournful dialog generates strange beauty and is a great illustration of «passion in the dark», ex­pressing strong feelings in muffled, semi-implied ways. ʽIn The Musicalsʼ is truly what you get when you cross Björk-style songwriting with the old cliché of «bright lights, big city gone to my baby's head» — orchestral excitement crossed with truly wild sequencing and capped off with a brilliant lyrical/vocal hook ("...and you were always there to catch me... when I'd fall").

The brief crescendo of ʽ107 Stepsʼ could be thought of as an unintentional answer to the ʽ39 Lashesʼ of Jesus Christ Superstar — the protagonist cruelly wound-up towards martyrdom — but, rather than being something self-sufficient, works more like an appetizing introduction to ʽNew Worldʼ, which finally realizes the theme previewed in ʽOvertureʼ and is one of the stateliest anthems to «death as liberation» in existence, and — get this — it is totally warm, friendly, and presents the «New World» as a much more familiar and cozy place than any of the «Icelandic» soundscapes of Homogenic. So if you ever needed an excuse to say "I'd rather die than go to Iceland", there you have it, clear as daylight.

In the end, I guess, Lars von Trier does deserve our gratitude for offering his lead such a perfect opportunity. Who knows, maybe he should have also let her handle the script — and the cast — and the directing — and the editing — and we might have a really good movie to go along with all the great music. Of course, most of the user reviews of Dancer In The Dark that I have read wrong the movie for all the wrong reasons ("such a potentially great movie about human wicked­ness and injustice, but why cast this loonie imp in the title role?"), so this could never happen, and Björk herself has said that acting is not one of her forte's, and that she only did this for the money because it was a matter of special interest. But whatever — the important thing is that we do have the soundtrack album, and that it is perfectly legitimate to simply treat it as a mini-rock opera, and give it a thumbs up, and be happily done with it.


  1. Great review of a fantastic album!

    I know that from a certain point, Bjork's releases became more
    'abstract' in nature (though I wouldn't place Homogenic too much among these myself), what with the harp-and-voice or acappella art pieces - but her output to this day is quite 'human' and in touch with visceral, fundamental experiences of life. So, in spite of the fair amount of abstraction since about Vespertine, she's still very much worth connecting with. And Bjork still hasn't estranged herself from more accessible songwriting, even if there is less of it than on her early albums.

  2. I guess the movie's no longer a "B+"?

  3. I haven't seen the movie, but I did watch the clip of "Cvalda", and it nearly ruined the track's awesome whirling grandeur for me- it was much bigger and more wonderful in my head. So maybe I'll just stick to the album without getting any better context for it- "Cvalda", "I've Seen It All", and "New World" all established themselves early on as among my favorite Björk songs, so why ruin it?